Proms 2003 First Night

Festive Overture, Op.96
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Prokofiev arr. Stasevich
Ivan the Terrible, Op.116 – concert oratorio

Lang Lang (piano)

Simon Russell Beale (narrator)
Irina Tchistyakova (mezzo-soprano)
James Rutherford (bass-baritone)
BBC Symphony Chorus
BBC National Chorus of Wales

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leonard Slatkin

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 18 July, 2003
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

The opening fanfares rang out thrillingly to herald the 109th season of the Proms. One of the very few of his works without an apparent ’subtext’ – subversive or otherwise – Shostakovich’s Festive Overture, written in a very short space of time in 1954 to mark the 37th anniversary of the (second) Revolution, finds the composer in an unbuttoned mood of joyous celebration. The helter-skelter ’presto’ was taken at a comparatively sober pace, which allowed for details of instrumentation and phrasing to register, and was convincingly delivered by the BBCSO under Leonard Slatkin’s buoyant direction. The lyrical second subject for cellos and horn provided a relaxed counterpart to the scampering clarinets – surely more than a passing nod to Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila overture. The later combination of themes was realised with admirable clarity and the coda’s extra brass was splendidly forthright. Maybe Shostakovich, after all, was poking his nose at the bombast of Soviet-inspired celebratory music

The young Chinese-American pianist Lang Lang then appeared dressed as if he were going to spend a day at the seaside – with Slatkin he gave a remarkable performance of what, in indifferent renditions, can be regarded as a tired old war-horse. This was, quite simply, astonishing playing displaying a level of technique that was phenomenal but, much more importantly, conveyed an understanding of the musical values of the score. This hackneyed piece was re-evaluated here. Lang Lang and Slatkin considered the work seriously and gave it the care and attention it so rarely receives.

After the brazen horns of the introduction, the strings played the first theme with an expression that was both noble and poignant, and Lang Lang’s chords were not simply thundered out inconsiderately. This opening set the pattern – there was real weight and dignity. Even the piano’s fireworks felt related to the structure. Lang Lang’s striking virtuosity responded to the composer’s many fearsome challenges with apparent ease, and his quiet playing was articulate and also winningly skittish where appropriate.

Lang Lang was engaging in his response to orchestral soloists – the expressive flute solo at the start of the slow movement – indeed, this sense of give and take was a particular feature of the performance. The rollicking finale had a truly dance-like quality, and Lang Lang appeared to positively relish the taxing nature of his part. He is the subject of much hype and promotion. Whilst he clearly has engaging personality and presence, I was thoroughly impressed with his musicianship.

Given that one of the main themes of this year’s Proms is Greek myths, it was perhaps odd not to have had any related work in the opening night. However, 2003 marks the 50th anniversary of Prokofiev’s death. The music he wrote for Eisenstein’s film Ivan the Terrible is a classic of the genre. Unlike his score for Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, Prokofiev did not fashion Ivan the Terrible into a concert entity. There have been several attempts to do so, but the ’original’ by the conductor of the soundtrack, Abram Stasevich, made in 1962, is probably the best practical solution.

Yet there are drawbacks, with several scenes compiled from disparate sections, and one cannot help empathising with Shostakovich’s comment regarding Alexander Nevsky: “Despite a whole series of wonderful moments, I don’t like the work in its entirety … It seemed that many sections end before they get started”. Whatever reservations there may be about the oratorio version of Ivan, this performance made the best possible case for it. Leonard Slatkin’s enthusiasm drew a committed response. Simon Russell Beale had the difficult task of portraying a variety of characters. This he managed creditably, without descending into caricature. The vivid colours of the orchestral writing were extremely well realised, whilst the security of the combined choruses singing in Russian, whether fervent or prayerful, was admirable.

Irina Tchistyakova provided an authentically Slavic timbre and was expressive in her solos and James Rutherford was suitably robust in his inebriate scene with the men’s chorus – a number that was especially effective. There were, in fact, three sections omitted and a substantial cut to one other. But even with the ardent sounds of “Russia is being united” ringing in our ears at the close, one couldn’t help pondering Shostakovich’s reservations and wondering whether Prokofiev’s anniversary might havebeen more appropriately marked.

  • Radio 3 re-broadcast on Monday 21 July at 2 p.m.
  • BBC Proms

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